Monday, October 8, 2012

Election Day in Brazil

After months and months of listening to political tunes passing non-stop on the streets, yesterday October 7th were the Brazilian Municipal elections. My following observations and analyses come from my experience living in Camaçari, Bahia during this election process, and it has been an interesting one. (Unfortunately I'm not a very good photographer, so I've tried to explain through writing what I've seen).



Camaçari is an industrial city, it has massive multinational factories including Ford, Bridgestone Tires, Continental, and the major Petrochemical Complex which creates the materials necessary for plastic products distributed throughout the entire Northeastern region of Brazil. Besides this major source of income and employment for Camaçari, the center of the city has little more than about 40,000 mainly lower middle class residents, as well as a few "favela" neighborhoods, one upper middle class neighborhood, and one big hotel for international bussinessmen passing through. Camaçari is also one of the biggest counties in Bahia. It has some of the state's best beaches, remaining Atlantic forests and clean rivers. While most of the attention in Bahia is on the capital city, Salvador, Camaçari's access to international capital and natural resources is a force to be reckoned with. The intense political campaigning during this election truly represented it's worth in a way I could have never predicted.

The loudest and most public form of campaigning in Bahia are the "carros de som" or cars with massive amplifiers that play a candidate's campaign song all day, every day throughout every street of Camaçari. This has been going on in Camaçari since the day I arrived on July 5. That's over 3 months of listening to the same tune promoting the candidates for the Mayor and the "vereadores" or City Council for the county. They serve as a sort of congress who work together to help Camaçari grow, develop and "serve the people". Initially there were 4-5 candidates for Major, but all joined together in opposition against the incumbent and ruling party, PT (Worker's Party). Ademar Delgado, the PT candidate for governor, clearly had the most support and resources as a candidate. Ademar continually came out with new political tunes in different Brazilian styles -- samba, forró, axé, and finally pagode. He used the pagode music as a way into the hearts of the peripheral neighborhoods, who even came up with an iconic dance to accompany his musical campaign.

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For the first few months, these songs as the main method of political campaigning really confused and bothered me. I didn't understand how the people of Camaçari could take the non-stop noise and perturbation of these cars morning, noon and night. But everywhere I went, I saw people singing along or dancing to these songs. At the core, they liked them, and everybody I asked said this method really worked for the candidates. Hey, I guess that's why they do it.

But I just couldn't understand how what appeared to be such an absurd form of campaigning could possibly work. Over the past few months, I slowly put the pieces together.

1. Voting is obligatory in Brazil. Everybody has to vote whether or not they care about politics,  understand the issues, or can even read. 

2. Brazil, and especially Bahia is a very oral culture. The more I was forced to listen to these "carros de som" the more I realized that these cars aren't that different from a lot of other forms of expression and propaganda that occurs on the streets every day. Little ice cream, fruit or natural gas carts or handy-men constantly ride their bikes or motorcylces down the street playing a tune promoting their services. To create a street party in Bahia it only takes beer and a parked car with a good sound system playing the latest pagode songs. It made perfect sense that politicians would take advantage of these modes of public expression to promote their names.

3. Bahia has a very high illiteracy rate (an estimated 15% illiterate and many more semi-literate). The public educational system cannot even compare with that of a "first world" country (a term that many Bahians are quick to use when talking with me about the differences between the U.S. and Brazil, though I never choose to use it). As I'm following the presidential race in the U.S., I've noticed that although the bickering and campaigning can get childish at times, the debates and speeches are quite eloquent and intelligent. When I was watching Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic Convention, I was astonished that I, as well as the entire convention and millions of Americans watching, could follow and understand his logical explanation for why the Democratic party and specifically Obama is the right choice for America. This sort of campaigning depends on a literate and well-educated public to follow the issues and debates and ultimately make their own, educated choice for the election. Of course this idealistic process I'm presenting could be debated for the U.S., but compared with the Brazilian elections, the differences demonstrate very clear distinctions between the two societies. At the election booth, Brazilians may remember their favorite campaign tune, or listen to a friend, and vote for that number just because they have to in the moment (as all the candidates are identified more by numbers then by names).

The other aspect of Brazilian politics that really strikes me is the dependence on bribery and tit-for-tat mentality which define so many people's political choices. People work for campaigns to be "taken care of" in the future. Their support for a candidate doesn't depend on an explicit political agenda or moral issues but rather a self-interested guarantee that in the future there will be some sort of benefit. This is publicly practiced and accepted. The return is usually in the form of money, or some sort of favor that will help them or their family. Somebody might vote for their "vereador" because he/she bought them a TV or helped get rid of a ticket, or because he/she helped a friend or family member in some way. 

In theory, Brazil is a multi-party system. I was excited about this because I thought it would be an opportunity to see a political system functioning outside of strict bi-partisan U.S. politics. However, as the race progressed, I saw that separate political parties form coalitions with many others and end up supporting the same few candidates. No matter what, the election for governor, in almost every Brazilian city, boiled down to two candidates running against each other. The multi-party system broke down throughout the competition and ended up being two-party like any I had ever known. However, separate parties did seem to make a difference for the race for City Council (vereador), as each candidate supports one of the candidates for Mayor, but remains loyal to and representative of their own party. 

So... the results on election night. I asked an older man how the results would be announced, and he replied "oh, on the internet, I think". But when the results were coming in, it became clear that the information would be announced like most things in Brazil, mouth to mouth in a street congregation. My boyfriend picked me up and brought me to the City Hall where a party scene unfolded around cars blasting radio announcements as well as the winning candidate's campaign songs. Most people were drinking beer and dancing, eating barbecue; it looked just like carnaval. I was laughing, taking it all in. Sure, when Obama won in 2008 I joined a street party in Berkeley and ran through the streets screaming and jumping. But there was no beer, I was a freshman in college, it was the first African-American president to be elected in the history of the U.S. It seemed exceptional. But while talking amongst my Bahian friends, they said "No, everything here is a Carnaval. Everything ends in cachaça. Whether you win or lose, everybody will celebrate or cry with cachaça tonight". And that's how it went down.

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Ademar Delgado of the governing party, PT, won in Camaçari. However, in most of the other big cities in Brazil, PT lost to other political parties. Their prominence in Brazilian politics is questionable for Dilma's re-election in 2014. The PT headquarters in Camaçari were filled with dancing, screaming, drunk supporters celebrating their win. The streets were filled (and I mean FILLED) with leftover leaflets and fliers, used as confetti in the celebration. It was certainly fun, even though I don't support PT much more than the oppositional parties. I have little hope that either will do much to change the status-quo of Bahia or Camaçari. The most they'll see is a new public square, perhaps a small remodeling or new concert hall. Despite the growth of Brazil in the international marketplace, the wealthy remains with the wealthy politicians, factory owners and businessmen who seldom share or distribute with the majority, who end up partying in the streets anyway.



These past few months have been an extremely interesting experience for me. I've contemplated politics and culture in a way I never could have staying in the U.S. and following the Obama vs. Romney race (though I am participating as a spectator and absentee voter). I've been trying to discover how this could be relevant to my research. While it doesn't explicitly relate to Ruth Landes or Edison Carneiro, it's useful to understand how Brazilian politics function today and compare it historically within Brazil as well as with the U.S. model. Today conversations about candomblé are very open and expected. I would never get kicked out of the country for studying amongst the black populations like Ruth Landes was suspected of being a communist for doing so. In fact, most candidates put up huge plaques of themselves hugging marginalized community members, old black men or "baianas de acarajé". They want to prove that they can relate to the people, even if just for a bribery or photo opportunity.

Today the celebrations with the same songs for PT (the number 13 or "treze") and Ademar are loud and continuing. I am certainly looking forward to the end of this Brazilian election, and to send in my absentee ballot for the U.S. elections (where I feel like I actually belong). After all that, perhaps I'll buy an ice cream when the street car passes by with it's little music...